Thursday, January 29, 2009

85. Out of My Mind on Dope and Umpty

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

May 2000: Meanwhile, over at the Megazine, some very interesting things have happened. Andy Diggle is now the editor of this publication, while also working as assistant editor on the weekly, and he's beginning to put his own, inventive stamp on things. Much of Diggle's perspective on what 2000 AD should be would later be summed up with his expression "a shot glass of rocket fuel," about which, more another time. What it means in practice is keeping one eye trained on what the comic did best in its 1980s heyday, and how they did it as well as they did. There's plenty of room for nostalgia under Diggle's watch, but principally nostalgia for the fast-paced storytelling style that made early 2000 AD so memorable, and not necessarily for old characters. There will be a few old faces and names showing up again over the next couple of years, but the emphasis will be on new series and storylines, and when classic thrills are resurrected, it will, arguably, be done with a little more attention to detail and respect than some of the second-rate comebacks from the early 90s. Although you might want to watch this space; there'll be a riproaring argument about that point regarding a certain big, mean tyrannosaur in due course.

As editor, Diggle brought an end to Preacher's two-year tenure in the Megazine's pages. After reprinting that comic's first 25 issues (up to the finale of the Masada storyline), the Megazine was resized and now matches the dimensions of 2000 AD during the 1980s. This is to accomodate the new reprint feature: the classic Strontium Dog serial "Journey Into Hell." This adventure first appeared in the weekly in progs 104-118 and had never been reprinted, since the films had been lost, and shooting from the printed pages was not considered an option. Finding the films was motivation to give the serial a fresh airing, and a well-timed one, since Johnny Alpha had a new story running in 2000 AD.

Interestingly, "Journey Into Hell" proved to be a unique challenge for Diggle, who was doing double-duty as the Megazine's designer. Each episode is five pages long, with a double-page opening spread, so there's an ad forced into the space between each of the three episodes reprinted in each of five issues. Journey Into Hell has been reprinted in collected editions twice since this appearance, in 2004's Strontium Dog: The Early Cases and 2006's Strontium Dog: Search/Destroy Agency Files 01, proving itself a layout headache for further designers.

The Strontium Dog reprint is teamed up with two new episodes each month. These are a 12-page color episode of Judge Dredd and a 10-page black-and-white episode from one of the Megazine's supporting characters. This format will stay in place for about a year and a half before the Megazine makes a radical upgrade in the summer of 2001. Currently, the second strip is a new case for Armitage, making his first appearance in about five years, in a new four-part story by Dave Stone and Steve Yeowell. The debt owed to Inspector Morse is made very clear in this episode, part of which takes place in Brit-Cit's "Colin Dexter Block." This isn't actually Yeowell's strongest work, and compared to, say, Zenith, it looks like he's being very tightfisted with the black ink, but he still does layouts like nobody's business, and effortlessly proves what a fantastic storyteller he is.

Judge Dredd, meanwhile, is about halfway through a seven-month storyline called "Dead Ringer" which is the spiritual descendant of classic tales like "The Judge Child" and "The Mega-Rackets," with several events and incidents from those stories briefly revisited in a lunatic romp. The story starts with an assassination attempt on a European diplomat, who is critically wounded. The Mega-City judges will do anything to cover their butts, and when they find that one of their citizens is from the same clone stock as the diplomat, they send Dredd to pick him up to engage in a little subterfuge. Unfortunately, the citizen panics, bolts, ends up on a Helltrek out of town, is picked up by stookie glanders, sold to alien slavers and is last seen on a planet full of umpty addicts, with Dredd all the while in patience-ending pursuit. If you recognize the references in the previous sentence, then John Wagner's script is just for you, readers of classic 1980s Dredd who will recognize the strip's iconography and background. In an interesting experiment, each of the seven episodes is drawn by a different artist, including Duncan Fegredo, Simon Coleby and Wayne Reynolds. The second part provided the first Judge Dredd episode for the Scottish artist Jock, who would go on to contribute several more Dredd stories and some iconic cover images over the next couple of years before decamping with Diggle to work for Vertigo in 2003.

Next week, one of those Jock stories I just mentioned. It's mushroom mania in the Shirley Temple of Doom, plus classic Slaine from back when Glenn Fabry was putting more ink on the page than any twelve other artists.

(Originally posted 1/29/09 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

84. The Commonwealth That Wasn't Secret Enough

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

April 2000: Sinister Dexter are on the cover of prog 1190. It's a very silly piece by Greg Staples which uses word balloons for just about the first time in living memory. The story inside is part two of "Mission to Mangapore" by Dan Abnett and Andy Clarke, and it continues the long investigation into the criminals that were behind the carnage of the epic "Eurocrash" storyline which appeared about a year previously, and reintroduces Finnigan's estranged wife Carrie Hosanna as being in the employ of the series' latest underworld kingpin. Sinister Dexter has a long history of playing with puns and stereotypes in its multi-ethnic, European cast, and this is the first time it's really played with Japanese stereotypes. It hits the expected targets, including yakuza and ninjas and rock gardens and five-mile-high buildings and a liquid metal Terminator II-type robot killer which chooses to hang out in the shape of a big-eyed schoolgirl, but it's all a bit predictable and dry, really. Clarke has a really hard time adjusting his style, which is gorgeously realistic and natural, to accomodate Polly, who's supposed to be some sort of generic "anime" stereotype. She looks deeply out of place. My feeling at the time, and it's echoed as I reread it, is that Ray and Finny aren't enough out of their element, that Abnett didn't make Mangapore as bizarre as it could have been. Obviously the island-city has that name for comedy identification reasons, but "manga" doesn't mean "just another Japanese thing" to me, it means "comics." It's a shame that this world wasn't populated by a culture as obsessed with comics as Downlode is by hitmen and kingpins. Maybe it's just me, but while "Mission to Mangapore" isn't a bad story, it's really just any other Sin Dex adventure, albeit one with ninjas in it. File them off and the story could've been set in Downlode.

On the other hand, the current adventure of Pat Mills' Slaine is utterly unlike any other Slaine adventure previously published, because it is jawdroppingly awful. No kidding, friends, this is the one that nobody can stand.

The story is called "The Secret Commonwealth," and it is four months of eyekicking artwork burying what might have been an interesting plot somewhere. It earned the instant derision of fandom when it first appeared, and my kids immediately cried foul when they saw it. David Bircham is the art droid responsible for this mess, and I have previously said an unkind thing or two about his artwork in previous installments of Thrillpowered Thursday.

I think what amazes me most about "Commonwealth" is that the style Bircham uses here is a quantum leap backwards for him. No, I did not like his work in Vector 13 or that chunk towards the end of "The Hunting Party" storyline in Judge Dredd or the Sin Dex adventure "Smoke and Mirrors," but apart from some obvious problems in pacing and how the characters on the page relate to each other, I would say that those were still evidence of a skilled professional using a style that I simply didn't enjoy looking at. "Commonwealth," with its bargain-basement heavy metal airbrush appearance, looks like it predates those stories by years.

What really strikes me is that "Smoke and Mirrors" at least evoked its island setting with a consistent use of greens and browns in the pallets, and full backgrounds of trees and local color. "Secret Commonwealth," as befits something that looks like the night security guard was doodling in between six-hour recreations of Iron Maiden's "Eddie" in a Crimean War uniform, mostly doesn't have backgrounds at all, just vast expanses of white separating the characters. Seventeen weeks of this was enough to sour the readership on Slaine for ages, and once this turkey ends in prog 1199, it would be the last we'd see of the character for two and a half years.

Lest my negativity bring you down too much, the other three stories in this prog were good. John Smith and Simon Davis teamed up for a Judge Dredd episode, Nikolai Dante concluded the magnificent "The Rudinshtein Irregulars," and there was a fun one-off by Andrew Ness and Siku called "Space Dust." Ness was a regular on alt.comics.2000ad and everybody had high hopes for him landing a series commission, but this has proved to be his only 2000 AD work so far. Haven't seen Andrew around the message boards and forums in some time; I hope he's doing well.

In other news, Rebellion has continued its series of Strontium Dog collections with The Kreeler Conspiracy. This follows up the five-volume "Search/Destroy Agency Files" which reprinted the entirety of the original run of the series. This book, unnumbered on its spine, reprints three of the first four adventures from the revived series. It starts with the titular "Kreeler Conspiracy" (mentioned here in Thrillpowered Thursday a couple of weeks ago) and also includes the very fun serials "Roadhouse" and "The Tax Dodge." Lost in the shuffle, sadly, is the one-off adventure "The Sad Case," which originally appeared in "Prog 2001," and was presumably left behind for space reasons, and which we hope to see in a future collection.

Despite that story's absence, the book's a fun, meaty little exercise in plotting, as Johnny Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer face challenges that require them to use their wits more than their firepower. "The Tax Dodge" is especially fun, as the bounty hunting duo are faced with a representative of customs and excise on one side, and a very amusing alien race on the other. These guys, easily-offended, overcompensating loudmouths with quick tempers, are among the funniest alien species to ever appear in 2000 AD. All three stories are by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, and this book is very highly recommended!

Next week, since the Megazine entered the 2000s with another format change, I'll be looking at that. Also, Dredd gets high on drugs.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

83. Pussyfooting Around

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

March 2000: The cover of prog 1185 features a wonderfully old-fashioned composition by Cliff Robinson which evokes any number of 1980s IPC comics. The little gunmen are the action figure-sized heroes of Banzai Battalion, who are this week wrapping up their second run-in with Judge Dredd in a three-part story by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy. They are actually semi-sentient pest control droids who keep finding themselves thrown into situations where human criminals become the pests they need to stamp out. Since their human owners died during the events of the recent "Doomsday Scenario," and since they keep making themselves useful, the droids are sent by Dredd to join Justice Department in some capacity, but when they reappear in their own series in 2001, they'll have to take the initiative to strike out on their own. The subsequent Banzai Battalion series will run for thirteen episodes, most of which were reprinted in a 2005 hardback by Rebellion.

Probably the most important series running at the moment is Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns. We've now left behind the initial, devil-may-care Phase One of the series and entered the period of bloody war between the Makarovs and Romanovs. Burns is the principal artist for this period, and while I personally find him not a patch on Dante's co-creator Simon Fraser, I must agree that he is well-suited to painting lavish, double-page spreads full of desperate soldiers on bloody battlefields, carving each other up against the backdrop of burned-out buildings and the misery of human suffering. Yes, this would be the point where Dante loses a lot of its magic as things get incredibly bleak in imperial Russia.

But even while the focus of the writing has moved from outlandish escapades and intrigue to the horror of war, the artwork's change of focus is similarly striking. Burns chooses not to linger on the instantly-identifiable architecture and fashion that defines Dante's world, and he eschews the grandiose camera angles, the surprising perspective and the action-oriented speed lines that Fraser has used to such great effect in the earlier episodes. Burns makes a stamp on Nikolai Dante, all right: he darn near stamps out entirely everything that made the last three years of stories so wonderful.

That sounds quite harsh, but it's not to say Burns' work is in any way poor. While there will, sadly, be one or two future Dante episodes that look like they were painted while his laundry was drying, "The Rudenshtein Irregulars" is a tour de force from start to finish, and is visually breathtaking in its own, inimitable fashion. Faced with the challenge of tearing down the beauty of the future vistas that Fraser and those artists who handled fill-ins in the first phase had created, and emphasizing the stark horror of all-out war, Burns is more than up to the challenge. It is bleak, amazing stuff.

What I'm identifying as the second phase of Dante, known informally under the agonizing pun "Tsar Wars" and available as two volumes from Rebellion (the fourth and fifth in the series), will turn out to be its most troubled period. The initial plan had been to tell this storyline in five series of eight episodes. Burns was to paint the first, third and fifth series and Fraser was to handle the second and fourth. However, Fraser was in the process of relocating to Africa when the deadlines for his first story came up, and as a result, this adventure, "Battleship Potemkin," had to be postponed until later in the year, causing some rewrites and an unfortunate continuity error. Fraser would not be available in early 2001, and the creators and editors will revise the plans for the subsequent stories, as we will see.

Also of interest this week is the first of two stories for Pussyfoot 5, an adventure series set very loosely in the Judge Dredd universe. It's actually a spinoff from the 1999 Devlin Waugh epic "Sirius Rising," where three of the five characters on the team first appeared. It's about a team of gun-toting troubleshooters employed by Vatican City to handle crazy SF-threats, and the cast includes two sexy ladies, one enormously fat guy, a weird, growly rock-like alien pet, and Mantissa, who hasn't shown up in the narrative yet. As the bulk of the action falls down to the two curvy cuties, it looks very much like the cast is about three members too large. As Dave Merrill once asked me, "What was that Dirty Pair thing that was running the other month?"

John Smith handled the script for the series, and Nigel Raynor is the artist for the first story. Raynor's not bad at all most of the time, but something about this strip completely fails to gel. Everything seems very flat and unappealing, and the coloring, by the usually reliable D'Israeli, does not flatter Raynor's work at all. Events in every location seem balanced by exactly the same lighting, a harsh wash of reds and yellows, like the characters are all at a '70s disco. And, to be blunt, while I am using terms like "sexy" and "curvy cuties," Raynor doesn't really succeed in bringing the cheesecake that would have made this strip memorable.

Since I'm a big fan of John Smith's universe, and since I do believe 2000 AD needs more leading ladies, I was very much prepared to like Pussyfoot 5, but the result was fairly average. On the other hand, running as it did alongside the current Slaine epic made it seem pretty spectacular by comparison, but more about that in the next installment.

The Dredd/Banzai story and the Nikolai Dante adventure are both available in reprint editions from Rebellion. A collection of Pussyfoot 5 is said to be on the horizon as a free supplement to a forthcoming issue of Judge Dredd Megazine.

Next week, an oddly all-S edition, with updates on Sinister Dexter, Slaine and Strontium Dog!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

82. Preacher Cain Wants Books

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

February 2000: I love the fantastic cover by Jason Brashill on prog 1181. Okay, so maybe he doesn't get Cain completely right - he appears a little jowly to me - but that's a fantastic composition, and when Gordon Rennie's Missionary Man gets its long overdue collection, as surely it must, this needs to be the cover of Book Two. The current storyline is called "The Promised Land" and it is a proper, old-school Dreddworld epic which runs for about four months and features Cain hooking up with a Helltrek in the Cursed Earth. In a small departure from the many stories set in the atomic desert that was once middle America, there are several overlapping subplots that propel the adventure beyond the patchy, episodic style of the many "Cursed Earth quest" tales that John Wagner had already penned before this one. Principally, there's the problem of the Helltrek making new enemies everywhere they go, and these menaces carrying on in pursuit of the settlers from story to story. The artists on "The Promised Land" include Trevor Hairsine, Colin MacNeil, Dean Ormston and Alex Ronald, who puts in his best work to date with some eerie quasi-suburban landscapes in the early episodes, set in an isolated community populated by gun-toting maniacs who think they're the rightful government of the long-destroyed United States.

It's been a little more than a year since I last discussed Missionary Man in my Reprint This! feature (now available on its separate Blogspot site, with Missionary Man written up here for everyone to see), and I have to say that I really think doing a proper reprint of this series should be on Tharg's to-do list for 2009. The first book needs to contain the following stories, which appeared between 1993 and 1997:

"Salvation at the Last Chance Saloon," "A Town Called Intolerance," "Legend of the Unholy Drinker," "Bad Moon Rising," "Season of the Witch," "Sanctuary," "The Undertaker Cometh," "Treasure of the Sierra Murder," "Medicine Show," "Night Riders," "Mississippi Burning," "Crusader," "The Big Sleazy," "Night of the Hunter," "Mortal Combat" and "Juggernaut," which would be a fine place to wrap up. That should come to about 235 pages.

Book two then needs to contain the rest of the series, which originally appeared between 1997 and 2002, and features all of Missionary Man's time in 2000 AD before the series moved back to the Meg for its final two stories. These are:

"The Shootist," "Storm Warnings," "Prologue," "Mardi Gras," "Goin' South," "Apocrypha," "The Promised Land," "Mark of the Beast," "Silence" and "Place of the Dead." These would come to about 197 pages and make for two simply excellent books. I hope Tharg gets to work on these this year!

The rest of the prog is also very entertaining. It features the second part of a Judge Dredd story called "Pumpkin Eater" by Alan Grant and Siku, in which Dredd matches wits with a serial killing couch potato, Sinister Dexter in a one-off by Dan Abnett and Paul Johnson, Glimmer Rats by Rennie and Mark Harrison and Badlands, a short serial by Abnett and Kevin Walker. If I understand correctly, this story of 1870s gunmen who have fallen through a crack in time into the Mesozoic Era had originally appeared in an anthology comic from Tundra in 1994, but appeared in 2000 AD in a slightly revised and expanded edition across five issues. Kevin Walker hadn't painted in this style for some time - it is reminiscent of his work on the ABC Warriors adventures "Khronicles of Khaos" and "Hellbringer" - but while it's visibly a throwback artistically, it's still a great-looking story, even if it ends up being a little slight.

In other news, Rebellion's ongoing series of Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, now with slightly modified trade dress, including a gold badge in place of the U on the spine, and color on the front cover, has reached the eleventh edition, reprinting 50 episodes from the heady days of 1987-88. Writers John Wagner and Alan Grant began winding down their regular collaboration and embarked on one final hurrah together: the 26-part epic "Oz," in which the recurring recalcitrant menace Chopper escapes Mega-City One custody and flies to the Sydney-Melbourne Conurb on his flying surfboard to take place in Supersurf 10. Judge Dredd is in hot pursuit, but it turns out that the "escape" was engineered to give Dredd a big, public reason to be stomping around a foreign Mega-City; there's a lost "tribe" of bizarre cloned judges with outlandish technology operating from the nearby radback...

Outside of "Oz," there's plenty to enjoy in this book. You get the first appearance of eleven year-old psycho killer PJ Maybe, a second scrap with a recurring villain called Stan Lee - the world's greatest martial artist! - and so much great artwork by the likes of Steve Dillon, Brett Ewins, Brendan McCarthy and Cliff Robinson. But "Oz" is definitely the selling point here. The volume, sadly, does not correct a pair of misprinted pages (the first two pages of episode three were printed in the wrong order in 1987 and no reprint has ever corrected the error), but the story is downright amazing, a wonderful, loopy adventure with several twists and unexpected detours. It's so much more than the standard devastation of the city by Sovs/robots/terrorists/Judge Death that you often see in the big, six-month Dredd epics, and the final six episodes, in which Chopper races in the insane skysurfing match, will leave you breathless. Reading that story one chunk a week was agonizing in the spring of 1988! Highly recommended.

Next week, Banzai Batallion! The little pest control droids return to duty in a new adventure.

(Originally posted 1/8/09 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

81. The Dog is Back

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

Jan. 2000: Prog 1177 sports a cover by Mark Harrison which promotes the series Glimmer Rats by himself and Gordon Rennie. Harrison signs the image "After Frazetta," but I'm not certain which particular Frazetta piece that Harrison's homage is evoking. For my money, the cover is certainly the best thing about Glimmer Rats, a gruesome, violent war story set in an ugly, physics-defying world with a million graphic deaths around each corner. The ten-part story began in "Prog 2000" and ranks among my least favorite strips to ever appear from the House of Tharg.

Everything else in prog 1177 is considerably more memorable. There's a fun Judge Dredd one-off by Alan Grant and Jason Brashill, one of a long series of single-part stories that Grant had contributed during this period, along with the ongoing epic Missionary Man, about which more next week, by Rennie and Trevor Hairsine. The prog also features what I believe is the first 2000 AD work by the writing team of Colin Clayton and Chris Dows on a Pulp Sci-Fi one-off illustrated beautifully by Cliff Robinson. The duo's later efforts, Bison and Synnamon, would receive mixed reviews from the fan base, but this is a perfectly good old-school thrill with a pretty cute twist ending.

The most entertaining, and most important, strip in the lineup is the very welcome return of Strontium Dog, back in action after almost a decade's layoff, and handled by the strip's original creators, John Wagner and Carlos Ezqeurra.

Strontium Dog first appeared in the premiere issue of Starlord back in 1978, and appeared in most of that comic's 22 issues before it was cancelled and merged with 2000 AD. From there, the series and its lead character, the mutant bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, became semi-regulars throughout the 1980s. Wagner initially wrote the series solo before teaming with Alan Grant for most of its celebrated run. Grant wrote the last few storylines on his own in the late 1980s. Almost all of the series was illustrated by Ezquerra, though he elected to stop working on Johnny's adventures once it was decided that the character would meet his demise in a major epic, "The Final Solution," and instead moved over to Crisis to illustrate Pat Mills' Third World War. The full run of the original Strontium Dog run is available in a series of big, chunky reprints called "Search/Destroy Agency Files," and your bookshelf looks naked without them.

Anyway, earlier in 1999, the Showtime cable network was developing TV series based on the 2000 AD properties Strontium Dog and Paul Neal's Outlaw. They came to nothing, but Wagner had assembled a pilot treatment and series bible for the proposed series, and, not wanting to waste a good thing, agreed that the time was right to bring Alpha back to action. "The Kreeler Conspiracy" is a thirteen-part expansion of Wagner's proposed pilot, and it appeared in the comic in two chunks across six months.

The story features the affectation of being the genuine history of Johnny Alpha, including "footnotes" from the historian who has compiled this dramatisation, and suggesting that the earlier series had presented legends of the bounty hunter's life. This notion would be used again in the second new story, which appeared in December 2000, before being quietly shelved in favor of a continuity-friendly approach that simply suggests the new run consists of previously untold tales of the character.

Strontium Dog has since joined the ranks of Tharg's periodic returning series. While it's not appearing anywhere as frequently as it did in its heyday, a new story appears once a year or so. At the time I'm writing this, it's on the ninth story since this comeback. It's called "Blood Moon" and it started in "Prog 2009." Honestly, I think the last one, "The Glum Affair," felt a little long, but otherwise the series is reliably inventive and imaginative, blessed with some great characters and some of comics' best artwork.

As far as reprints of this material go, Glimmer Rats was reprinted by Rebellion in a 2005 hardback that is not currently available at Amazon; Strontium Dog: The Kreeler Conspiracy just arrived in stores a few months ago. This collection will be reviewed here in a few weeks' time.

Next time, Dredd's nemesis Edgar finds a new job in Justice Department, Preacher Cain goes to Vegas, and Dredd goes to Oz in the newly-released eleventh Case Files. See you all in seven!

(Originally posted Jan. 1 2009 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)